Windows XP

Reinstalling Windows XP

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I spend a fair amount of my time helping many people with their personal computers (mostly laptops, but desktops as well). A friend of ours noted that I had my own Computer Ministry a while ago. Lois liked the term and printed T-Shirts labeled Pastor Pedhazur, with the names of many in my flock. 🙂

Among the many people I help are our cul-de-sac neighbors (I support the mom, dad and teenage daughter) with whom we’ve been good friends for 18+ years.

The Dad’s current laptop is a Dell E1405. It’s a nice small-to-midsize laptop running XP. When he bought it, it came with 1GB of RAM (two 512MB sticks) and an 80GB disk (with only 55GB of usable space, we’ll get to why in a bit).

It ran well for a while, but started giving him a bunch of trouble when his teenage daughter used it a few times (possibly before she got her own Dell for Christmas, or possibly because it was simply more convenient one day for whatever reason). Being a teenager, she visited sites she shouldn’t have, installed stuff (wittingly or otherwise), and the machine was infected with a number of viruses and spyware programs.

I used to fix their machines in their house, and chat with them while I was working away. There were many days (mostly on weekends) where I’d be there for upwards of five hours. I didn’t mind, because (like I said above), we’re good friends. But, I tend to play poker mostly on weekends now, so when they have a problem, I tend to pick up their machines (or they drop them off) and I work on them in my house.

So, a month ago I picked up his machine and spent the day cleaning off all of the viruses. That went reasonably smoothly. I also deleted the daughter’s account (with their permission), now that she definitely has her own full-time laptop (yes, I previously had to clean hers as well, but she’s kept it pretty clean since then).

Even though the cleansing went well, I noticed the dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death) a number of times. In fact, I could provoke it at will (if waiting a full hour each time counts as at will). It felt like a bad memory chip, since it failed in the same way every time, but I couldn’t be sure.

I have a dozen or so utility CDs which I can boot off that have various tools on them to help me with my ministry. I pulled out one that had a variety of memory tests, booted from it, and let it run for a few hours. No joy, I couldn’t provoke any failures. Then I pulled one of the RAM chips out, and ran the one-hour program, and indeed, it still failed.

I then swapped the memory chips, and reran the program, and it ran to completion. I also moved that chip to the secondary slot, and it continued to work, so it appeared that neither slot was bad either! Aha, had to be a bad RAM chip, right? Perhaps, we’ll find out in a minute or two… 😉

As an aside, Dell puts the second slot under the keyboard, and the machinations you have to go through to get to that slot are nerve-wracking and unwieldy. Of course, now that I’ve swapped chips for him numerous times, I’m a daredevil at doing it and can swap the chips in my sleep… 🙂

He could have run on 512MB, but that’s not a lot of headroom for Windows XP. Instead, the next day, we ordered two 1GB modules. The following weekend I took the machine again, and put in the memory modules. I reran the long program, and it failed at the one hour mark, again… 🙁

I pulled one chip, reran the program, and it worked, so it appeared that perhaps one of the slots was bad (or flaky), but at least he was back to 1GB of memory, not a total loss. I returned the machine to him.

A week later, I called to ask how it was running. Sheepishly, he admitted that it was crashing a ton, but that it came back each time (in fact, it auto-rebooted), and he was limping along, able to check his email, etc., but not really use the machine for extended periods. Clearly, he felt badly imposing, but I felt badly that he didn’t!

We were leaving for VA that day, so I told him I’d check it out when we returned, which was a few days ago.

My plan was to reinstall Windows XP from scratch to be sure that it wasn’t a deep software corruption on his system. If a fresh install still showed regular crashes, then he had to have some kind of hardware problem.

I picked up the machine on Friday morning. I have a number of ways that I back machines up (mine and others) depending on the situation. For ultra-safety and complete backups, I tend to use a commercial program called EZ Gig II (it’s a custom Linux distro with some sort of packaging of a dd-like program, though not exactly that). The program came with an external disk drive kit that I bought a while ago, and I’ve been very satisfied with it. There are many free programs that accomplish the same thing.

However, I didn’t want to use that program for this task, because it creates a blob that can’t access individual files. You can restore the entire disk to another partition, but not copy over one file that you just forgot you’d need, etc. Still, I wanted a full backup, and I didn’t want to just copy all of the files.

I pulled out another of my trusty utility disks. This one is the BartPE CD, an excellent collection of Windows utilities on a bootable CD. The advantage of this over a Linux bootable CD is that you are really running Windows, so all disk activity is virtually guaranteed to work with NTFS filesystems, including writing. Don’t flame me, Linux has gotten really good at this too (with NTFS-3g in particular), and I do use it, reliably, but BartPE comes with a specific utility which I really wanted to use for this specific task!

That utility is DriveImage XML. This is very cool software, that works exactly as advertised. There are two reasons why I use EZ Gig II more frequently than this. EZ Gig is way faster and EZ Gig will allow me to store multiple images of the same drive on the same target (backup) drive. DriveImage XML is slower, and doesn’t let me name the backups, so it’s less flexible.

That said, it has a feature that makes it way better than EZ Gig for the task I needed, which is that it stores a map of the data it backed up in a separate XML file, and every file (or directory, etc.) can be restored (or rather extracted) separately.

So, I booted the Bart PE CD and ran DriveImage XML and backed up the drive to an external hard drive. I was now ready to reinstall Windows XP. For years, no one has been better than these folks at keeping every bit of stuff that came with any PC they purchased. It took them 30 seconds to find the original CDs and manual.

But, I mentioned above that the disk had 55 usable GB on it. That’s because it had a hidden restore partition on it as well. I found the key combination to boot off of it from the manual (actually, the online manual at Dell’s site, since it was easier to search that). When I booted the machine, I pressed Ctrl-F11 and was presented with the Recovery Menu.

I chose a full reinstall. The machine chugged along, and a litte bit later, it was like new from the factory (bloatware too), including Microsoft Office which they had paid for separately. Cool.

I immediately deleted all of the bloatware and proceeded to bring the system back up-to-date with Windows Update. Here, I made a very critical error! Early on, I allowed Windows XP SP3 to be installed by Windows Update. While it completed correctly, after it was installed, other critical updates could not proceed (including updates to IE 7). I’m guessing that the system was simply in an inconsistent state.

I was tempted to start all over, and reinstall XP from the recovery partition again. Then I decided to try something I’ve been aware of, but have never attempted. I picked a Restore Point from the Help and Support menu in Windows, and picked the restore point that was automatically set before SP3 was installed. In effect, I was rolling back the SP3 install.

That worked, and I was left with only one program that I had previously deleted to delete again. I then forced a new save, so that I could roll back again (without needing to delete this extra program), just in case.

I then performed all of the updates in XP, each time skipping SP3. Only when SP3 was the only update left did I allow it to install. Perfect. I then ran the program that always provoked the memory error (this time with 2GB of RAM back in the sytem!). It ran flawlessly. I did a bunch of other things, and never got the BSOD! Joy!

So, it turns out that it was indeed a deep software problem, and reinstalling Windows fixed it. He’s now got a very nice sytem, with a nice memory upgrade, clean of anyone elses stuff (family and malware included).

After getting it running, I put in the Bart PE CD again (this time not booting from it, just inserting it while logged in), and ran DriveImage XML again. I was able to pull over all of his files (Documents, Settings, etc.) and check what programs were installed as well.

He’s up and running now and I returned the machine to him yesterday afternoon. I had the machine in my possession for roughly 26 hours, but it was side-by-side with mine, and I worked on Friday, played poker on Saturday, etc., without losing a beat on my own stuff. Pretty good result all around! 🙂

Microsoft Madness

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Yesterday, I read the following article on PC World’s website. It mirrored my thoughts about Windows XP vs Windows Vista perfectly, including direct experience not just theory.

What I learned in that post (which I probably should have known earlier but didn’t) is that Microsoft intends to stop most sales of Windows XP as of June 30th, 2008. I’m not really sure what most means in this context, but either way, it’s boneheaded.

I just did a quick search, and apparently it means that they likely won’t be offering it to OEMs, so if you expect to get Windows pre-loaded on a new laptop after June 30th, you’ll have a choice of Vista or Vista (or Vista or Vista, given that there are four version of Vista available!).

John Heckman questions whether Microsoft won’t bow to pressure and push back the June 30th date.

The minute I read the article I knew I was going to post this. My first instinct was to title it Wake Up Microsoft. Then this morning, it came to me, this is the perfect season to aptly and correctly use the term Madness.

It’s clear that Vista is a bomb. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone without an ax to grind that would seriously defend the merits of Vista over XP. It’s not the first time Microsoft has bombed with an entire operating system. How many of you are still running Windows ME?

At least with Windows ME, it died a relatively quick and painless death. With Vista, for any number of reasons, Microsoft isn’t willing to give up. Given enough time (and money), they will likely make it decent, though it’s unlikely to ever be great (given it’s core), and it’s not even likely to get decent given that they are already working on it’s successor.

The madness isn’t in not killing Vista (I understand that the investment and marketing bets that they’ve made are too big to simply throw away). The madness is taking away the only viable choice that still puts money in Microsoft’s pocket!

Folks, there’s no doubt that XP is eating into Vista sales. That’s the only reason that Microsoft wants to stop selling XP, they want to remove the competitive choice and force new computers to be pre-loaded with Vista! Will it work? Of course, there are many people who wouldn’t consider Linux or Mac under any circumstance, and they will grudgingly (or ignorantly) accept a machine with Vista on it, if they have no other choice.

This doesn’t make it a smart strategy. The sane move would be to keep offering XP as a choice (while heavily promoting Vista). Then, whenever Vista truly rivals XP (don’t hold your breath), or Windows 7 (or whatever it will be called when it finally arrives) is available, stop selling XP.

In the best case scenario, Microsoft will sell exactly the same number of licenses in total (Vista only, instead of a mix of Vista and XP). They will get to declare a huge PR win for Vista (look how sales ramped so nicely!). They will not get any additional profit (since they will be maintaining XP for years to come anyway). They will create a slew of miserable users who will equate Microsoft with pain (or worse).

In the worst case scenario, they will push people toward alternative operating systems like Mac and Linux.

I haven’t done a scientific survey, but I honestly believe that nearly every technology professional (business people too, not just developers) that I know has switched to using a Mac as their primary computing platform (most on laptops, but I know a number of people who use iMacs as well!). When I say “nearly every” one, I believe the number is pretty close to 90%.

Examples include Zope Corporation. While 100% of our services to customers are delivered on Linux-based servers, there is only one developer in the company that hasn’t switched to a Mac. Even the SAs (System Administrators) all got Macs recently (though one of them decided after the fact that he’s more productive on his Linux laptop).

My friends (you know who you are) have been needling me for years to switch to the Mac. I have very long experience with the origins of Mac OS X (NeXT), so no one needs to convince me of the power and the beauty of the underlying software.

I haven’t switched for two reasons:

  1. There are programs (some cool, some necessary) that only run on Windows, or at the very least, run on Windows way earlier than they become available on Mac.
  2. The value proposition of generic hardware (laptops and desktops) is overwhelming vs the Mac stuff. The Mac stuff is gorgeous, and brilliantly designed. Ultimately, it’s not worth the money and locks you in. They also have enough quality problems to make me pause.

My non-technology professional friends (neighbors for example) still prefer Windows. There are a number of reasons but they are all valid (games for their kids, Windows is used at the office, I know Windows, I don’t want to have to buy new copies of software I already paid for, etc.).

In April 2004 I bought my current laptop. In fact, I just wrote about that in this post. I bought it without an operating system pre-loaded because I was committed to switching to Linux full time. The experiment lasted six weeks (not too bad), but once I started running Windows in Win4Lin, I realized that I wasn’t quite ready to cut the Windows cord full time, and I installed Windows XP Pro.

There were two reasons that I switched back:

  1. 95% of the day I was happier on Linux than on Windows. 5% of the day I required a program that was only available on Windows. That 5% started to bug me more each day until I switched back.
  2. Linux was great in 2004, but it wasn’t quite as good on cutting edge hardware as it is today, and I had some real problems on my (at the time) brand new beast. It’s possible that I would have toughed it out if Linux had worked perfectly on my laptop back then. I have no doubt it would work flawlessly today.

My one direct experience with Vista came when my next door neighbor bought a new Dell Laptop for her mother. There was no choice, Vista only. I am their tech support team and she asked me to customize the machine for her mother when it showed up. I was amazed at the hoops I had to jump through to install programs onto the machine. I couldn’t begin to imagine what someone who was less technical would have done (other than throw the machine out!).

In addition, the machine crashed on me at least 10 times in one day during the setup. Sheesh.

Since then, I have been asked for laptop recommendations at least five times. In all cases, the buyer wanted Windows. In all cases I have vehemently recommended XP, and (amazingly enough) it was now available again as an option. None of those users has had a single problem with their new laptops.

Where does that leave me? As I mentioned in my spring cleaning post, I will likely be buying two new laptops at some point (possibly this year, but definitely next year if not in 2008). I have thought about this (before knowing about the demise of XP) for much longer than I care to admit, and I decided that I was going to stick with Windows. Sorry Mac fanboys. 😉

If Vista is my only choice, I can guarantee you that I won’t be buying it. Best case scenario (for Microsoft) is that I will buy a retail CD of XP and load it myself. Much more likely scenario is that I will install Linux on the machine, and try really hard to avoid the few Windows-only programs that I’ve come to rely on. The least likely choice is that I will break down and buy Mac laptops, but it’s not impossible (the possibility is at least on my radar for the first time ever).

So, coming full circle to my original post title: Wake Up Microsoft!